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Miles ahead, miles to go: despite a year of progress, post-mill challenges remain in Canton

Miles ahead, miles to go: despite a year of progress, post-mill challenges remain in Canton Allen Newland/A Shot Above photo

Not a lot of people remember the date the whistle last blew or the date the last workers put their well-worn tools down and took their shiny plastic helmets off for the final time, but everyone seems to remember the date of Pactiv Evergreen’s shocking announcement — the date that marked the end of one era, and the beginning of another. 

“That was, to us, the death,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers. “You can tell me when someone died, but you can’t tell me the day of the funeral.”

The community would have little time to mourn the closing of the century-old paper mill at the heart of Canton. Key state, regional and local partners immediately stepped in to provide a soft landing for the mill’s workers and their families, and began working on infrastructure and real estate issues, a process that continues one year later.

In terms of where Canton was a year ago it’s now miles ahead, but local leaders are still focused on the miles ahead.

 Tommy Long, an electrical instrumentation technician at the mill for nearly 25 years, had just stepped out the back of the shop after fixing a coal-fired steam boiler. Sitting on a stack of pallets a little after 5 p.m. on March 6, 2023, he got a text. Then, a coworker stopped to chat. Then, another. They were all telling him the same thing.  

“It resonates in my mind like the day the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, the day John F. Kennedy got shot,” Long said. “It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

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An unusual late afternoon meeting called by Pactiv had just concluded, and word was beginning to trickle out that the mill would close in three months. Long recalls feelings of abandonment and betrayal, but it wasn’t a complete surprise.

Racked with turnover, the company had stopped hiring from within, opting instead for recent college grads who struggled to fit in and became disillusioned with the Dickensian atmosphere at the 115-year-old mill. Critical pieces of equipment weren’t being maintained or repaired, downtime increased, and production suffered as the market sagged.

The vicious cycles at play were similar to those that led to the demise of a Kannapolis company called Pillowtex, in 2003.

Weeks after Pactiv made its announcement, somebody somewhere along the line remembered that several academics had the foresight to chronicle the closing of Pillowtex and the community’s response.

When what’s now called “the Pillowtex report” began to make the rounds in Haywood County, local leaders realized they were already following the same response protocols without even knowing it, and were even ahead of the game in many respects. According to the report, five days after the July 30, 2003 mass layoffs at Pillowtex — around 4,800 workers were given pink slips that day, without warning — a community center opened, providing multi-level services. Three days later, worker orientation sessions began to be held at the plant, a job resource center opened and the local community college spooled up workforce development programs that ultimately served more than 1,600 former Pillowtex employees.

Haywood had these initiatives in place during a similar time frame and before the mill had even closed.

Long, who is also a Haywood County commissioner, said that one of the first phone calls he made was to Shelley White, president of Haywood Community College.

“We were concentrating on, ‘Hey, we’ve got to take care of our people,’” Long said. “That was my main focus as an elected official. I wanted to make sure that the government was doing all it could possibly do to facilitate retraining.” 

news mill praysign

Shortly after Pactiv’s announcement, signs encouraging people to pray began popping up around the mill.  Max Cooper photo

Haywood Community College quickly become a clearinghouse for all things mill-related, but not by accident. White had already experienced a similar situation when she previously worked at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

“It was during the time right before the Great Recession, where there were a lot of company closings happening,” she said. “My job was to go out and meet with people who had just found out they were going to be losing their jobs and talk to them about training and talk to them about educational opportunities.”

As with the pharmacy tech, medical coding and customer service programs for Pillowtex workers at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, HCC launched a CDL truck driving program in partnership with Caldwell Community College.

Within the first week after the announcement, HCC established the Haywood Strong scholarship fund to help mill employees pay tuition. By the end of 2023, White estimates, the fund had distributed more than $50,000. Five months after the closing announcement, HCC graduated its first class of truckers, all former mill workers.

Figures recently released by the North Carolina Department of Commerce show almost no change in Haywood County’s unemployment that year, while Kannapolis saw a 5% spike in the immediate aftermath of Pillowtex closing.

Haywood County’s rapid response team was also able to help Pactiv workers avoid — just barely — the three-month health care coverage gap that Pillowtex workers experienced. Benefits for Pillowtex workers were terminated the same day the workers were, while Pactiv neglected to inform its insurer that it was closing, causing a delay that left some workers to go without expensive doctor visits and medications they could no longer afford.

“We all kind of banded together and said, ‘Okay, how are how are we going to solve this?’ And so by summer there were some steps that were able to be taken to help put resources in place so that folks wouldn’t go without health insurance,” White said.

Ironically, the closing of the mill may end up having a positive effect on the county’s workforce.

“I think some of the longer-term impacts for the college will be the funds that we were able to receive from the General Assembly this past year to make further investments in workforce programming and facilities and equipment,” White said. “That’s going to help position us to continue to be responsive for those workforce needs in the future.”

Of the $6 million, half will be used for improvements at the High Tech Center, including new equipment for machining and electrical programs. The other half will be used for career and technical programs and for bringing the truck driving program fully under HCC’s purview.

“I think that looking back over how fast we’ve moved over the past year as a community, it feels to me like we had the right people in the right places to problem-solve,” White said.

news mill steam

Steam escaping from the mill — once a common sight in Canton — now exists only in photos and the memories of residents. Max Cooper photo.

Another less quantifiable way Canton’s response has equaled or exceeded that of Kannapolis is in planning for the future of the site. 

“We had the largest textile mill in North America under one roof,” said Daryl Hinnant, mayor of Kannapolis, at a Pisgah High School town hall held last June. “Over 6 million square-feet, larger than the Pentagon, under one roof. This was a white elephant in the middle of our town. Literally in the middle of town.”

Although the downtown redevelopment in Kannapolis is seen as a success, it took nearly 20 years for a billionaire developer to swoop in, buy the land and partner with the University of North Carolina system and the state on a research campus concept that created around 1,000 good-paying, mostly white-collar jobs. The developer also sold 50 acres to the town for $100,000 each. Since then, Kannapolis has seen mixed use development, new businesses, more housing and a new minor league baseball stadium.

In Canton, closed-door economic development discussions have been taking place with Pactiv for months over the 185-acre parcel that straddles the Pigeon River, right in the middle of town. Pactiv still owns it, but it’s thought that a milieu of state and local governments along with community-oriented nonprofits are cobbling together an offer for Pactiv’s consideration.

That carrot, however, comes with a couple of sticks.

The first is the threat of a state lawsuit over a $12 million economic development grant, the terms of which Gov. Cooper says Pactiv violated by not maintaining employment levels agreed to in the grant. The other is the industrial development moratorium Canton enacted last July. Essentially, it prevents Pactiv from selling the parcel to another industrial concern without the town having a say in the matter.

Concerns over pollution may give some potential buyers pause, as Pactiv continues to rack up environmental violations, even though the mill has been closed for nearly nine months.

Much of the parcel lies in areas prone to flooding, limiting its uses, but much of it does not.

Smathers says he’d like the site to become a success story of its own.

“I want to see a location that produces the strongest and most diverse economy in Western North Carolina, one that includes manufacturing, but also includes mixed opportunities, whether that be recreational or commercial use. I would love to see an education component,” he said. “The other thing is flooding. I mean it, and I’ve said it over and over again — the one hill that I will die on is that some of it has to be flood relief and mitigation. We do not know what that site is going to be in the future, but we do know another flood will impact us. We have to prepare for that.”

He’d also like to see some historic preservation.

“So often we talk about what’s next, but we forget about the people and places and sacrifices that made us who we were, and are and I think that is a huge component of this,” Smathers said. “It’s a constant reminder of what made not just Canton, but this country, great.”

Ultimately, it’s up to Pactiv to sell or not to sell. As was the case in Kannapolis, it’s a real possibility that the site could languish for years, unused.

“I hope that’s not the reality, and I promise you, that’s not the goal. This place, this economy and these people deserve not to have that happen,” Smathers said. “We’re working and have been working exceptionally hard behind the scenes in seeing what the options are, and I’m cautiously optimistic that won’t happen.”

The one area where Canton isn’t ahead of Kannapolis in the recovery process is by far the most puzzling. Pactiv has for decades treated the town’s wastewater, but a two-year agreement for Pactiv to continue operating the wastewater treatment plant will soon end.

Canton has $38 million from the General Assembly, but not the site. Once it acquires one, permitting and construction will take years. Kannapolis came to an agreement with Pillowtex to take over its wastewater treatment plant within six months of the closing.

“We have an idea what our plan is with wastewater six or seven years from now, and with the help of our legislative delegation in Raleigh, we know what the future looks like, but in the present, knowing that the mill will only run wastewater until 2025, that is a huge challenge for us on so many fronts,” Smathers said.

Still, Smathers remains optimistic even as he recalls naysayers who thought the town would simply dry up after such a devastating loss.

“There are amazing days ahead, partly because of the character and the strength of this town and the people who are still here,” he said. “There will be a great ending to this story.”

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